Catching Up With The Councilman

Councilman Joe Buscaino, photographed in his San Pedro office. (photo by John Mattera)

It’s 1:30 p.m. on July 15 and Councilman Joe Buscaino is on a much-needed vacation. Nonetheless, he’s made it a point to be in his San Pedro office today, with his son and daughter in tow, to catch up on some business and speak to San Pedro Today for this anniversary issue.

Dressed in a polo shirt, shorts and tennis visor on this particular day, the council office seems to fit him quite well. It seems like a far cry from his days patrolling the streets as a Senior Lead Officer with the LAPD, but in reality that was just 18 months ago, and San Pedro has been quite busy during that year and a half.

Under his watch, he’s seen the USS Iowa and Crafted open along the waterfront, main thoroughfares Gaffey and Western have been repaved (including a number of side streets), Ports O’ Call redevelopment has begun, the Southern California International Gateway Project is moving forward, skateboard “bombing” has been curbed, and, with his help, Los Angeles has a newly-elected mayor who can actually find his way to San Pedro. (Not to mention, those frustrating bike lanes, which his office is currently trying to rectify.) It’s been quite a busy year and a half for the councilman, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

San Pedro Today: What do you think the state of San Pedro is today?

Councilman Joe Buscaino: There are some exciting times ahead of us without a doubt. It all starts with the waterline. For us to be a part of it to ensure that we don’t delay and we don’t stop progress is one of my goals. We’re seeing it. We’re feeling it. We’re hearing it, as well. The people are interested in investing in San Pedro. Look at the recent developments in the last year: the USS Iowa, Plaza Park, naming a developer for renovating Ports O’ Call, Crafted… We’re just excited. Look at the number of visitors that have come through San Pedro in the last year, it’s phenomenal and we’re just getting started.

SPT: Some might argue that there’s a battle going on between “old” San Pedro and “new” San Pedro. The older generation vs. the younger generation. Status quo vs. change. Do you find it tough to convince people of change here? As councilman, how do you convince people that change is imminent and we should embrace it?

Buscaino: Well, I think we need to be fair. We need to respect people’s opinions without a doubt. But I look at when my dad came back from a fishing trip; he took my mom, my sisters and I straight to Ports O’Call for dinner and ice cream. Fast-forward to today and I’m raising two kids in San Pedro, I think of them. I think of our future generation and the opportunities that are going to be provided for them here in town. I hope and pray that my kids remain here and my kids’ kids remain here, as well. The only way for us to think about our future generation is to make sure that they have opportunities in San Pedro, not just working the docks. The docks shouldn’t be the only job opportunity here for our families. There should be other opportunities for them to work and remain here and raise their families here. Change is good, absolutely. It’s up to our generation to move the ball forward and not stop progress. I understand there’s always going to be concerns about development, but at the same time, we need to listen, we need to be respectful of the process, and make the right decisions.

SPT: Social media has really put a microscope on crime in town, causing many to believe that crime is rampant. Whether it is or not, it’s happening and people are concerned about the recent criminal activity that’s been going on. As a former LAPD officer, how do we stop this problem?

Buscaino: Last year, the Harbor Area had the best crime reduction in 50 years. So regardless of what’s happening on Facebook and other social media sites, we’ve seen a reduction in crime. If you look at San Pedro, we’ve seen a significant drop in violent crime. We’ve always had a history of property crimes in town. I’ve experienced that as a Senior Lead Officer, as well. To answer your question, if you look at what’s happened in Hollywood and Downtown Los Angeles, good, smart development weeds out crime. We’ve had our fair share of crime here, absolutely, but you weed it out by putting people back to work, by making San Pedro a destination, by attracting tourism dollars here. Look at Baltimore and how dilapidated it was and how quick it turned around. Good, economic development weeds out crime.

We have a vigilant community, and I’m proud of the fact and it’s evident in social media. I was proud of the fact that I have the most number of neighborhood watch groups in the entire South Bureau of the LAPD just because people wanted to help. The police cannot be on every street corner, as much as they’d like to. Our community can always use more eyes and ears.

Someone who’s just been victimized, they don’t care if crime is down or not. Yet, we have to acknowledge that the relationship between the police and the community is better than ever. We need to capitalize on that.

SPT: On another topic, filming in San Pedro seems to have dropped off lately. Some downtown businesses have complained in the past about film crews not respecting their businesses, which has caused distrust amongst the city and Hollywood. In your opinion, how important is it to bring more production to San Pedro?

Buscaino: I meet with Film L.A. quite often. Specifically, sitting on the Trade, Commerce and Tourism Committee. As a kid growing up on 19th and Alma, I remember CHiPs filming on 19th Street. I ran out there and saw Poncherello on his bike. When my dad was working on the nets at Ports O’Call, he called and said, “Guess who’s down here? Tattoo from Fantasy Island!” Those are my memories of filming in San Pedro. Here’s the thing, when production companies come in they help commerce. Whether it’s the grips, the actors, the studio personnel, they come, and not only do we expose San Pedro, but we help the business community. Yes, they have to respect the businesses because it’s going to affect their business. We have to be respectful of that, too, because our small business owners put their blood, sweat and tears into their own businesses.

We need to keep filming in the City of Los Angeles. I have friends who are in the film industry and they are oftentimes away for three months at a time, away from their families. These kids I coach in baseball, their dad was away on a production in the Midwest because they offer more incentives. That’s what we’re competing with.

SPT: You’ve been councilman now for a year and a half. What’s been your biggest win so far?

Buscaino: (pause) Do I have to pick just one?

SPT: You can mention a couple.

Buscaino: Okay, two of my main goals in the next four years are to lead the city in job growth and not to delay progress. We’re moving forward on the Southern California International Gateway Project (SCIG) to make this port more competitive, more efficient and more effective, and at the same time improving our environment. Developers have been chosen to lead the Ports O’ Call redevelopment project. In Watts, we’ve cleared the path for redevelopment of the Jordan Downs Housing Development. These three main projects are going to impact our economy tremendously and put people back to work.

There’s now an opportunity to move forward on Ponte Vista where you can put people back to work and offer some homes. We’re working with the Planning Department, the neighborhood councils and the community on that and hoping that moves forward within the next six months. For me, going back to your original question, the waterfront redevelopment is crucial for us. By moving forward on that project, we already have a lot of people who’ve expressed interest in investing in the Harbor Area community. We’ve done a lot in the last year and a half.

SPT: What would you say has been your biggest challenge?

Buscaino: Not moving fast enough. At the same time, there’s a process in place that I have to respect. I get excited about these projects and at the same, you know, there’s a process in place at City Hall that we need to follow that includes a lot of departments, including the City Attorney, which we need the legal advice of. But when somebody comes up with an idea and I know it’s feasible, it’s a “let’s get it done” mentality for me.

SPT: Speaking of getting it done, you campaigned vigorously for our new mayor, Eric Garcetti. In fact, I would go so far as to say Mr. Garcetti has made more appearances in San Pedro during his campaign than the former mayor has during his entire tenure. Do you think that because of your relationship with Mayor Garcetti that we are going to see a lot more enthusiasm from the Mayor’s office for San Pedro and the waterfront?

Buscaino: Without a doubt. Eric’s family to me, he’s like my brother. And in the last year and a half, I’ve learned a lot from him sitting two chairs away. The reason why I went with Eric on this is because I’ve worked with him day in and day out. I was with him three days a week on that council. I’ve seen what he’s done in his district and I just want to replicate that here. He gets it.

He called me on Wednesday before the Fourth of July, he said, “Joe, what are you doing for the Fourth?” I said there’s a great fireworks show down here at Cabrillo Beach. So he says, “Amy and I are bringing Maya, we’re going to come down and watch the fireworks show.” And we’re going to see more of that. You’re going to see him around town. He has an office downstairs [in San Pedro City Hall] that he’s opening up for people to come in and have office hours. It’s not going to take a press conference to get the mayor down here.

SPT: Any final words our town’s 125th anniversary and what it means to you, personally?

Buscaino: I still gotta pinch myself for this opportunity to serve my hometown. When I speak across the city, I say only in San Pedro is where you can find a hometown boy getting elected to a city office. We are blessed with who we are as a community, a community of faith, a community of family, a community that never leaves this place. And if they do leave, they find their way back home. So I continue to be humbled and grateful to serve and this’ll be a great four years. spt

San Pedro Native Has Treasure Trove Of Stories

Jean Taves is far too modest to ever consider herself a living treasure, but it didn’t take me long to add her to my own short list of San Pedro treasures after she sent me an email and we sat down and talked.

She knew how to get my attention; attached to that initial email was a copy of a letter written by her older sister, Barb, to her fiancé in October 1945 that describes a scene that many San Pedrans might still remember, the return of the Pacific Fleet to its former home port. The fiancé, Ben, was serving on the heavy cruiser USS Helena, then in New York. Barb wrote on Oct. 25:

I surely wish it could have been the Helena coming up the channel this morning instead of the cruiser Los Angeles. I paid particular attention to her as I know your ship is the same type. The new cruisers are really beautiful, aren’t they? So long and sleek and powerful looking. I’m glad you did get your big ship if it had to be a ship again. The troop ships have been returning every day as well as the battleships Texas and Nevada; cruisers Astoria, Baltimore, Tucson and L.A.; carriers Shangri-La and Hancock, several CVEs; mine destroyers; and several others. We have a marvelous view of them from the balcony of the building which is upstairs over the Cabrillo Theatre on Seventh and Beacon streets. There is a tiny fishing boat which is painted white and decorated with flags which meets each ship as the tugs bring her in to berth, and their favorite record seems to be ‘California, Here I Come.’ There is to be quite a program in the Coliseum at USC following a street program in L.A. Saturday (parade), and a sky parade of 300 Navy and Marine planes. There will be four submarines among the ships open for inspections Saturday. I’ve been aboard the larger-type ships years ago, but would like to see the inside of a sub.

Jean had just graduated from San Pedro High that June. Barb, a 1941 grad, was employed by the Navy in its public relations office, which was adjacent to the Fox Cabrillo Theatre below the Elks Club. Barb, who died in 2010, and Ben had a long life together.

Like most of her generation, Jean, now 85, has vivid memories of the long-ago past. In 1927, her parents’ house was the last one on west Santa Cruz, just below Walker and the original McCowan’s market. The boys she grew up with almost all ended up serving in the war.

In another email, she wrote: I still grieve over several friends who never returned whose names you referred to in your poignant article several years ago. In my mind’s eye I see the gold star in Robert Stambook’s mother’s front window in her tiny house off 9th Street. He was in the 5th Marine Division, wounded in the invasion of Iwo Jima, and sent back into the battle and was killed.

I have a copy of a March 1945 clipping from the News-Pilot with a picture of Stambook, a Summer 1943 San Pedro High grad, that says his “helmet saved his life on Iwo Jima, and permitted him to return to the fighting there after treatment at a first-aid ship offshore for shrapnel wounds in the head received the day his marine regiment invaded the island, according to word received by his mother, Mrs. Hazel Nelson of 1045 S. Alma.” Just 19-years-old and engaged to a high school friend of Jean’s, he was killed in action on March 14; he’s buried in Rosecran’s National Cemetery in San Diego.

Jean also recalls her stepfather, Arthur W. “Bill” Christensen, who survived a ship torpedoing in WWI while in the merchant marine, being recruited by the Army in WWII. Christensen was a longshoreman working for Crescent Warehouse when the Army came calling, seeking the services of stevedores to help get bomb-damaged ports in France back in operation following D-day. When he returned to San Pedro, he finished his career as a supervisor at Crescent.

As usually happens when two San Pedrans who’d never met before get together, we discovered common bonds. Years ago, she was a neighbor of my old San Pedro High math teacher, the late Glen Gallaher, who used to email me regularly. Now she lives just a few doors down the street from me, in the same house she’s owned since the early `60s. She mentioned a family that once lived next door, the Karmeliches, and the boys her son, Brian, played with. It turns out one of those boys, Chris, stands right in front of me when we line up at the casual hall.

Brian attended Crestwood Elementary and Dodson Junior High, but Jean sensed her son was destined for something special and enrolled him at Narbonne High because of its highly regarded public speaking program. He graduated in 1977 and went on to earn his Ph.D. from USC. Jean herself graduated from UCLA in 1953 but cut short a teaching career to care for her mother.

She was right about her son, but his story is going to have to wait for another day. Stay tuned. spt

A Victory For Waterfront Development

On a Tuesday evening in September of 2009, I had the honor of spending a long evening together with many hundreds of San Pedrans, all passionate about the future of a town we love. We all crowded into a meeting room at Liberty Hill Plaza and stayed well past midnight for a Harbor Commission meeting on adopting a proposed development plan for our waterfront.

The 400-acre project was designed to give the community better access to the water – and it included a promenade that ran alongside the water’s edge, water cuts and downtown-adjacent boating slips, various pocket parks, fountains and plazas, an extended Red Car line, and several other public features that would create a great waterfront experience for locals and visitors alike. The plan passed unanimously.

This was not just a plan to beautify the area, but to aid regional economic development through the introduction of various new shopping, dining and convention facilities that would give Los Angeles a waterfront that could compare to places such as Baltimore, Seattle, and San Francisco. At its core, the plan created a pathway for the Port of Los Angeles to redevelop Ports O’ Call Village with 300,000 square feet now zoned for shops, restaurants, a convention hall and other establishments that would make our waterfront a regional attraction.

It was great, except for one glaring problem. We were smack dab in the middle of a recession and there were very few development projects being launched anywhere. I recall a sobering dinner during this period with a friend on the real estate board at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management who told me that he saw no chance of Ports O’ Call being redeveloped.

However, as the economy slowly started to rebound, the Port finally felt optimistic enough to put out a request for real estate groups to submit their qualifications to be chosen to negotiate the right to redevelop Ports O’ Call. Although the Port was optimistic, it was a cautious optimism – as one Port source told me, they realistically hoped for two or three groups to submit. However, much to their delight, the Port received eight bids.

Among the seven bids they reviewed (one group dropped out); the Port chose a group dubbed the Los Angeles Waterfront Alliance to earn the right of negotiating a development deal with them. In my opinion, it was a great choice.

The lead member of the group is real estate developer Wayne Ratkovich. I first became familiar with Ratkovich when I noticed his name on the Wiltern Center in the Mid-Wilshire neighborhood where I lived in the late ‘80s. I became interested because I automatically assumed that with his “ich” last name, he must share my Croatian heritage, but I later found out he was actually Serbian (can’t win them all).

Our ethnic differences aside, I experienced firsthand the positive effect of Ratkovich’s redevelopment of the Wiltern. It created a great place in my neighborhood to see a concert in a grand music venue, or eat dinner and have drinks in hip restaurant establishments. It became a must-visit destination for me and tons of my friends that lived and worked throughout Los Angeles and Hollywood.

I later learned that Ratkovich has a great reputation for redeveloping places that had seen better days, but doing so without losing the authenticity of what made those places special in the first place. I’m excited and can’t wait to see how he and his team will make Ports O’ Call new again while giving a nod to the heritage of our waterfront and community.

Ratkovich’s local partners on the project, the Johnson brothers, Eric and Alan, are also fantastic choices. Their company, Jerico Development owns several properties in downtown San Pedro that both retain historical authenticity and are well kept. Ask the business owners that occupy their buildings and you will learn that these are great guys that deeply care about our town and do their part to contribute to the shared success of the downtown community. For example, Alan’s wife, Liz, runs Grand Vision, the non-profit that played the lead role in the restoration and administration of the Warner Grand Theatre.

Congratulations to the Port and to the Los Angeles Waterfront Alliance. I, and all of San Pedro, can’t wait to see you make Ports O’ Call great again. spt

Jack Baric can be reached at jackbaric@hotmail.com.